Lent: the Favorable Time

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s Address for Ash Wednesday

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LONDON, FEB. 8, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of an address Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor plans to give this Ash Wednesday during vespers in Westminster Cathedral.

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By tradition Lent is a time of giving up and doing without; no sooner are we over the shock of our credit card bills after Christmas, the Church asks us to undertake an annual “holy fast.” We live out a penance, like a daily hair shirt constantly pricking us. This is why the 40 days of Lent seem to pass so slowly. Will it never be Easter Day — when I can take up my daily habit again!

But this is a very grim way to go about Lent. The Church does not intend it to seem interminable; Lent, in a sense, ought to pass like a flash with a sense of desperate urgency. “Here we are, two weeks into the 40 days and how little there is to show for it!” It is a time of intense focus: Lent is a Christian way of expressing the brief life we live here on earth, a life of probation without a moment we can afford to waste.

No wonder St. Paul, in the reading of today, gives us an ultimatum. He says, “We beg you, once again, not to neglect the grace of God that we have received. Now is the favorable time. This is the day of salvation.’ Time narrows over the next 40 days, because we become conscious of the bigger drama of life, a drama that ends with death. Ash Wednesday, today, helps us to focus. The ash is put on our foreheads, and the priest says, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” The space in between is extraordinarily important, because it prepares us for the new life which we celebrate at Easter. And that new life is the path to our eternal salvation.

This sense of dramatic focus is beautifully captured in a passage in the Venerable Bede’s “History of the English People”:

“Imagine yourself among a group of Anglo-Saxon Nobles discussing the pros and cons of the new Christian Faith. Then one of them comes up with this interpretation of life. “It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counselors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while — but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”

But because Christ was born, died for us and rose from the dead, of what went before this life and of what follows we know a great deal. Our Christian Faith tells us that before this life there is our Eternal God Who lives in unapproachable light, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After this life, for us, created by God, there is the blessedness of Eternity with God. But where we come from and where we are going to is known to us and it is something for which we hope with all our hearts.

So if people ask me what they should do for Lent, I am inclined to say, on this Ash Wednesday, you should not try to do without something, but to get something done as if your eternal salvation depended on it. If Lent is to mean anything in our lives, it has to be a season of renewal. The word “Lent” itself means “springtime.” The idea is that we die with Christ like the seed in the ground and rise with Him to more abundant life. We die to sin and rise to integrity. We die to selfishness and rise to generosity, especially towards the poor.

Whatever penance we do, whatever we choose to give up or do without, should help us to put on these new clothes, and to grow into stronger, healthier Christians. Each one of us should spend more time in prayer during these 40 days; some time in reading a Lenten book about how better to follow Jesus Christ, and some exercise which involves care for others, perhaps a visit to someone less fortunate than we are. What we should give up is whatever stops us doing that extra thing.

As I have said, the word “Lent” means “springtime.” There is even a flower, or rather a shrub called “the Lenten Rose.” It only flourishes, blossoms, between February and April. You and I have the greater part of February and all of March to flourish and to grow and to live as Christ wants us to live. That is the invitation I make to you. Like St. Paul, I say to you, “I beg you, not to neglect the grace of God that you have received. Now is the favorable time. This is the day of salvation.”

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